5 min read  | Damascus, Homs, Politics, Reports

As elections underway, campaign ads reflect a nation divided


June 3, 2014

June 3, 2014 

By Alex Simon

AMMAN: Tuesday’s presidential elections were held amidst a raging civil war and deep nationwide polarization, with Damascus touting the poll as a major step for Syrian democracy while the opposition—and its Western backers—decrying it as a farce.

Competing media campaigns have highlighted the extent of this division. Early last month, Damascus began a press offensive touting both Assad himself and the electoral process writ large. Its substance ranged from standard nationalist fare to idolatrous images of the Syrian president, occasionally veering into the realm of the absurd.

Among the campaign’s more surreal elements are the posters and billboards promoting Hassan a-Nouri and Maher Hajjar, the two little-known politicians approved to “oppose” Assad in the elections.  These ads have typically comprised a non-committal series of buzzwords seemingly intended to convey little more than the idea that these candidates are running for president.

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“Syria…for Palestine,” reads one campaign poster in Damascus for parliamentarian Maher Hajjar, in a photograph posted on social media by opposition activist group Tahrir Souri.

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“To live with dignity, not in refugee camps or housing centers…Maher Hajjar,” reads another billboard. 

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Ads for businessman and former government minister Hassan a-Nouri have been similarly vague while stressing a-Nouri’s history in finance. “Developing economic laws,” proclaims one billboard in a photo circulated by pro-opposition news site All4Syria.

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“Economic pluralism through true partnership,” reads this poster in Damascus, in a photograph published on Tahrir Souri’s Facebook group. The graffiti in red paint reads “God, Syria and Bashar.”

“#Democracy,” observes the Syrian man who posted the photo.

The Syrian opposition, for its part, has seized upon the notion of holding elections when half the Syrian population has been displaced and an estimated 40 percent of the country has slipped from government control.

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“The presidential candidate distributes his electoral ‘platform,’” reads one cartoon showing Assad personally dropping barrel bombs on prospective voters. The cartoon was published on an opposition Facebook page under the rubric “Blood Elections,” which has become the main slogan adopted in condemning the poll.

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Another cartoon shows Assad manipulating the skeleton of a dead Syrian into casting a vote for him. “Don’t photograph my hand!” Assad warns the television camera.

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“Elect your candidate Bashar…for increased importing and exporting,” reads the caption in a drawing by independent Kurdish-Syrian cartoonist Kaniwar. The cartoon shows Assad bringing in al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and miscellaneous Shia jihadists while expelling Syrian civilians and their children.

The most ubiquitous subgenre of pre-elections advertising, however, has been in support of Assad himself.

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Assad’s official reelection campaign adopted as its centerpiece the word Sawa, meaning “Together” in Syrian colloquial Arabic. One photograph published on the campaign’s official Facebook page shows a schoolroom full of children looking expectantly upward towards the light streaming in through the window, and reads “Together, safety returns.” 

As of June 2013, one in five Syrian schools was no longer functioning due to fighting and displacement, according to Human Rights Watch. Many of these schools have been destroyed or damaged by government air raids.

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Unofficial propaganda shed light on the intensity of the personality cult surrounding the Syrian president. One pro-Assad Twitter user posted an image evoking Valentine’s Day, showing a pricked finger next to Assad’s face, proclaiming: “Syria is for us… And you are for her… We stamp with blood… Bashar.”

Reports have emerged of polling stations providing pins so that loyalists can prick their fingers and vote in blood rather than ink.

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Damascus has stressed Assad’s commitment to restore order and security to the country in his third seven-year term. “We will rebuild it together,” reads a poster hanging from a gutted building in the central Syrian city of Homs, in a photograph published by Wall Street Journal correspondent Sam Dagher.

Much of Homs—Syria’s third largest city and, to many, the “capital of the revolution”—has been reduced to rubble by government bombardment over the course of the war.

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The campaign’s clearest message has been one of defiance in the face of the Syrian opposition and an international community that has condemned the elections as a “parody of democracy.” One poster, photographed on the streets of Damascus and published by Tahrir Souri, reads: “The world will not change Bashar al-Assad. Bashar al-Assad will change the world.” 

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